The first sign of spring: Hongdae’s art market

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The first sign of spring: Hongdae’s art market

“Eccentricity” has been Hongdae’s watchword ever since the college neighborhood became a popular hangout for artistic types. Just think of all the local trends that were born and nurtured in Hongdae: alternative music; grunge fashion; crazy boutiques; and, of course, nightclubs without “booking.”
That, however, was before Hongdae was swept by the giant wave of commercialism that struck in the late 1990s. But many merchants in the area would agree that since the weekly flea market known as Hope Market was launched three years ago, the neighborhood’s creative spirit has been partly revived.
Perhaps it’s just that the market, which reopened last Sunday after being closed for the winter, has brought a vibrant springtime mood back to Hongdae, where most shops this time of year don’t even open on Sundays until late afternoon.
Strictly speaking, Hope Market isn’t a “flea market,” if that term makes you think of an American-style garage sale selling bizarre junk. Rather, it is a collection of stalls selling elaborate goods handmade by artists and craftsmen from all over the city. You can find used clothes and second-hand books, but most of what’s on display is new.
Hope Market was started during the 2002 World Cup by a collective of artists, and artistic-minded people, to encourage people to use crafts in their everyday lives. The idea was simple ― to build a scene in Seoul like Paris or New York, where artists could freely “commune” with the public in the street.
It also benefited young artists in Korea, who often have to wait until they are past their mid-30s to get their work into art galleries and get their careers going.
In three years, about 40,000 people visited the market (and a Saturday market on the same spot, where some of the same artists set up shop). Many people felt that it restored some of the Hongdae spirit of originality that had been lost as rents rose and landlords started leasing their space to bars and shops selling fake brand-name goods, a la Gangnam.
It also gave hope to Hongdae artists’ version of an “arts and crafts” movement that has its roots in 19th-century England ―a philosophy of resistance to the trend of mass-produced furniture, buildings and household goods.
Indeed, the items on display last Sunday seemed like evidence of a renaissance of creativity. The stalls were filled with arty goods, from kitsch to street art (or perhaps “outsider art” would be a better term).
Imagine a miniature-potpourri cellphone charm, with bizarre characters sewn into the fabric; a cylindrical storage unit for keeping coins and letters, made out of knotted cloth; a wallet stitched together from leftover fabric. Or how about a jewelry box with a dead cat inside? It’s a miniature coffin, with a ceramic handle shaped like a cross; lift the lid, and you find an adorable black cat doll, dressed in a suit and laid out on a bed. Lift up the cat, and there’s a place to store your jewelry.

On the other side of the market, artists will do portraits for 3,000 won ($3). Styles vary, though it’s probably safe not to expect photo-realism; the artists seem to be doing it for enjoyment, rather than as a profession. Or it could be that the drawings have been produced to match a current Hongdae trend that I am not aware of.
Bargaining can be seen everywhere. Jeong Hae-yoon, a jewelry designer who runs a bead shop near Sinchon, says most buyers haggle, even though she sells her designs in Hongdae for about half of what she charges at her own shop.
“If the same products are sold in Insa-dong shops, it’s inevitable that customers will pay double the price, because there is a certain amount the artist needs to get compensated,” says Lee Chan-woo, a glass artist at Hope Market. “If we have to split the margin 50-50 with the shop, the only way for artists to get the money they want is to raise the price. The price of merchandise is really just a giveaway at places like Hongdae.”
Mr. Lee said some artists in Hongdae get discouraged because visitors treat them like street vendors, feeling as free to bargain as they would with a dealer in a traditional market. Another artist, though, thinks Koreans are generally becoming more open to the idea of flea markets that sell used goods.
It’s not just the prices and the nature of the merchandise that make this market different, though. The merchants here actually encourage visitors to touch their products. They’re open to interacting with them and having long conversations about the creative process.
The marketing has caught up with a global trend: Hope Market’s theme this year is eco-design, a fashionable idea in some New York boutiques, where celebrities will pay hundreds of dollars for a bag made out of straw. Plenty of goods made from recycled materials can be seen in the Hongdae stalls, along with home accessories made from raw materials such as wood and natural dyes. Bizarre, hand-made crafts made out of regional materials can be spotted: a bamboo mug; jewelry painted with elaborate designs in natural fluid from a Korean tree.
“The crowd of visitors is pretty similar to shoppers in neighborhoods like Sinchon or other college districts,” says Ms. Jeong, the jewelry designer. “But the mood is different. There are a lot of artists buying other artists’ works.”

by Park Soo-mee

Hope Market can be found from 1 to 6 p.m. Sundays through October in the playground across the street from the main gate of Hongik University. On Saturdays, a similar flea market is held at the same place, with some of the same vendors. For more information, visit the Web site
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